Performing music over the internet

Tips and information on playing music online over the internet through Zoom or other real-time networked methods.

Is it possible to sing in real time over the internet? Well, if you've ever tried singing "Happy Birthday" with someone during a video conference, you'll be well aware of the challenges involved with playing or performing music over the internet. The good news is that getting remote performers to play in real-time (with a one-way latency of 20-30ms) is actually possible. However, latency (also known as the delay from audio source to listener) is one of the biggest hurdles to overcome. With a little knowledge, appropriate equipment and good doses of patience, this issue can be addressed and potentially overcome.

Two people performing together over a video conferencing application (such as Zoom) will inherently be out of sync anywhere from 300ms to one second, depending on the location of the participants.

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the development of a number of low-latency audio applications designed for music performance. Anyone interested in exploring this area is encouraged to check out the Sonobus application as well as the document Networked Music performance: A step-by-step guide to real-time musical collaboration over the internet using Jacktrip.

For anyone wanting a quick way to play music with a standard Zoom computer setup, here are two things you can do to improve the experience of playing music over the internet.

  • Enable 'Original Sound' in Zoom to improve the audio quality as well as other music related options.
  • Have participants mute their microphones so their out-of-time audio doesn't distract the other performers due to latency.

Improving the quality of audio through Zoom with 'Original Sound'

Zoom is designed to process spoken words by default and does its best to remove all other background sounds, including music. As Zoom squashes away musical frequencies the result is often a washy mess of audio that dips in and out. By using the ‘Original Sound' feature you can bypass this aspect to help get the best sounding audio from your microphone or input device. It’s always best to use headphones when using Zoom in a musical setting. If participants are not using headphones

The following frequency graph comparison shows the difference enabling the 'Original Sound' setting makes to a piano excerpt.

Zoom 'Original Sound' off

Zoom audio before

Step by step process to enabling 'Original Sound'

  1. Select the up (^) icon in the bottom left hand side section of the Zoom application when you are in a Zoom session and select Audio Settings…
  2. Select the Advanced button.
  3. Check the box Show in-meeting option to “Enable Original Sound” from microphone. Leave the 'Echo Cancellation' option at the Auto level. Turning on original sound sets the send bit rate at a constant 90 kb/s, compared with a variable bit rate of between around 24 kb/s to 100 kb/s on the default audio mode (depending on what audio is being fed into the system). The original sound setting also increases the 'frequency' or sampling rate to 48 khz which allows for a broader frequency of captured audio. This setting makes the most audible difference to sound quality for musical applications.
  4. If all participants are using headphones then turn on Disable echo cancellation. By disabling the echo cancellation when all users are wearing headphones, it allows everyone to hear each other without the audio sounding like it is being turned down artificially when someone is producing sound.
  5. Turn on High fidelity music mode. This increases the sending bit rate up to 154 kb/s and can be heard as minor increase in fidelity. This setting, along with disabling echo cancellation and stereo audio only apply when the original sound setting is turned on.
  6. Turn on Use stereo audio if appropriate to your session. This increases the sending bit rate up to 216 kb/s.
  7. In the main Zoom window, an option will now appear to Turn On Original Sound.
  8. When the option is active the text will show Turn Off Original Sound. Click this again to toggle the original sound to off again.
  9. You can also select a microphone to always use original sound to make switching between voice and musical sources more efficient.

You don't need to enable original sound if you are sharing an audio source via the screen sharing feature.

How to manage playing with audio latency in Zoom

Muting participant audio

In a leader-follower performance where one person is setting the tempo and others are following, having all participant (not the host/leader) microphones muted will avoid the distractions of out-of-time audio being sent back around to the participants. Participants will hear both their own audio and that of the instructor in real-time. The downside is that the leader will not hear anybody else’s audio so they will be essentially playing solo.

Group playing (asynchronous)

Any music style that don’t require synchronous playing can be performed online with all mics unmuted. These can include free jamming, drone-singing, textural music elements or asynchronous activities where exact timings are less important. This type of activity is useful in a situation where both video and audio latency isn't going to negatively affect the performance.

Using pre-recorded performances to simulate a live performance

Pre-recording a single musical part then sending it out and having participants record their part is a common way to produce a multi-part musical piece. Here's an example by the University of Melbourne Symphony Orchestra of Ravel's Boléro (from home).

Other pre-recorded music examples

Teaching music in Zoom

Along with enabling 'Original Sound', there are a few other techniques that can assist with teaching music in Zoom.

  • Use a second camera to show hand positions. For example an 'over the shoulder' shot of hands plating on a piano. Be sure to mute the microphone and speaker from the second device otherwise feedback will occur.
  • You can share a second webcam into a Zoom recording by going to Share Screen, selecting Advanced and choosing Content from a 2nd Camera.
  • Provide the student with permission to record the session locally on their computer. This will allow them to review later on as well as reducing the time you need to spend providing any videos.
  • Have the student play along with a pre-recorded accompaniment track. This is best done from the computer being used for Zoom since smart devices are not able to share the inbuilt sound playback.
  • Get students to use headphones when participating in the lesson.
  • If you want to share sound only in the session, you can do this via the advanced feature of screen sharing.
  • The original sound setting is also available on iOS devices within the meeting settings.

Resources

Audio production and streaming

  • Soundtrap - creative sound recording
  • ListenTo - send audio from your DAW to a URL
  • Share Piano -  A simple tool for remote music teaching + collaboration that lets you play music together live on the web
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